BRITISH MUSLIMS HAVE learned to develop a thick skin to get on in this country. In the late Eighties and early Nineties they were vilified by the liberal press for their unyielding opposition to Salman Rushdie's deeply offensive novel, The Satanic Verses. Their tormentors today hail from the combined ranks of the far Right, Government officials who should know better and assorted pro-Israeli columnists.
Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, is well-liked in the Muslim community. His anti-racist credentials mean that his comments can't easily be dismissed. Three years ago, when the Muslim Council of Britain hosted a reception at which he was chief guest, we rightly described him as being, in Margaret Thatcher's words, 'one of us'.
So it was with regret that we heard him refer to parts of the British Muslim community last week as 'very isolationist'. Why were we being singled out again, we wondered, and what effect would this have on the public's view of Muslims? Certainly, if a Government Minister were to take a drive round the capital he would find members of several faith and ethnic communities quietly going about their business - some of whom have been here far longer than most Muslims - who would appear to be just as 'isolationist'.
As the eldest son in a family of six children, in 1987 I was the first Bunglawala to gain entry to a British university. My parents were very proud. Fifteen years later, all six children have been through university and it is no longer such a big deal. Indeed, every year, record numbers of British-born Muslims graduate from our colleges and enter the mainstream professions - IT in my case. It is an increasingly well-educated and affluent community. Despite many obstacles, British Muslims have made remarkable progress integrating into British society in just one generation.
ISLAM ADVOCATES positive engagement with society. Where pockets of faith communities including Muslims have not been able to integrate properly and have turned in on themselves, we welcome dialogue to map a way forward. But what we don't want is to see our community scapegoated.
I was born and grew up in Bolton. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, I heard a lot about the National Front but was puzzled that I never actually met any of them. At school, it was regarded as dead uncool to be a racist. The Race Relations Act of 1976 did at least trickle down to Smithills school and achieve the desired effect.
Unlike Jews and Sikhs, however, British Muslims - the UK's biggest minority faith community - have not been classified as a 'race' and hence, are not protected by that legislation. Now, more than 25 years on, the British National Party has caught on and reformulated racist rhetoric into lawful anti-Muslim discourse. They have even launched a 'Campaign Against Islam' on their website that we are told will 'expose and resist the innate aggression of the imperialistic ideology of Islam'.
When Burnley and Oldham went up in flames last summer in clashes between BNP supporters and mainly Muslim youths, commentators were quick to advocate that no more Islamic schools should be funded by the state. The New Labour Government earned the appreciation of many Muslims for at last giving them the choice to educate their children in Islamic schools after years of Conservative blank refusal. No one seemed to point out that the youths involved in the riots were all products of state schools, not Islamic schools. Many of them had become so 'integrated' with British culture that they also absorbed some of its more questionable aspects.
THE HOME OFFICE - commissioned Derby Report last year revealed that Muslims now suffer 'a consistently higher level of unfair treatment' than most other religious groups. It recommended the Government introduce legislation outlawing incitement to religious hatred and discrimination.
But this has not stopped a long list of pro-Israel pundits in the British media becoming annoyed that the UK press occasionally allows a Palestinian viewpoint on the long-running conflict. Nor, in the wake of 11 September, has it prevented several pundits from declaring British Muslims a 'fifth column in our midst'. If the abuse that Muslims are asked to tolerate were covered by anti-discrimination laws such inflammatory views could be challenged. Meanwhile, it seems, the only solution for British Muslims is to develop even thicker skins.